Homage to the king of email

By Stuart Fuller


Before we start our working week by opening our inboxes, we should all pause and take a moment to remember Internet pioneer Ray Tomlinson, who passed away a few days ago, aged 74.  Ray was a US computer programmer working for Boston-based research  company Bolt, Baranek and Newman on the ARPAnet programme (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), widely regarded as the forerunner to today's Internet.

But his contribution to the world today was at the time seen as something so minor it was almost forgotten.  Tomlinson was looking for a way to send messages from one user on APRAnet to another and decided to use the "@" symbol.  Prior to then it's usage on a common keyboard had been to denote a unit of Spanish and Portuguese weight, equivalent to 25 pounds, later adapted to be the symbol to mean "at the rate of".

By using the "@" symbol Tomlinson was able to send private messages to different users in different locations.  The first email Ray Tomlinson sent was a test e-mail. It was not preserved and Tomlinson describes it as insignificant, something like "QWERTYUIOP".

Within a few months, hundreds of users on ARPAnet were sending messages across the network.  Five years later in 1976 Her Majesty The Queen became not only one of the first Brits to send an email but the first Head of State to do so when she visited the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, the UK node of ARPAnet, in Malvern.  Her email account had the username "HME2".  The message told all users on the network that the "Coral 66 Compiler", a computer language developed by the Ministry of Defence, was available for all to use.

Today we take email for granted.  Its usage is staggering when you look at the facts.  There are over 4.3 billion active email accounts in existence (as of end of 2015) with users sending an eye-watering 122,500,453,020 emails sent every hour.  Despite the growth in SMS/Social Media and various messaging apps, email is still the default method of communications within businesses today.  We may get annoyed by the junk and unsolicited emails, tricked by 419 scams (well, some people do), frustrated by being cc'd in on hundreds of them by work colleagues or simply delighted at receiving good news.  But we would be absolutely lost without them. And for that we should mark the passing of Tomlinson with the respect he deserved.

In 2012 he joined the likes of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Jimmy Wales and Vint Cerf into the inaugural Internet Hall of Fame.  His invention will live long on into our lives.